Union five-man back line deceptively attack-minded

CHESTER, Pa. – Union manager Peter Nowak isn’t afraid to try new things, even in the playoffs.

After a regular season full of personnel and formation changes, Nowak rolled the dice once again before Sunday night’s 2-1 loss.

Philadelphia played 34 regular season games and a U.S. Open Cup game with a four-man defense, but Nowak decided to deploy a five-man backline against Houston. Stefani Miglioranzi was inserted centrally in a new look 5-3-2 formation. 

“The decision was to avoid those penetrating runs,” Nowak explained during Sunday’s post-game press conference. “We decided to [play with 5 defenders] not just from a defensive standpoint, but from an offensive standpoint as well. We could push (our fullbacks) up further on the wings.

“I think that we weren’t balanced as well in the first half. There were some easy passes going to our wings. It was easy for Houston to put some passes together. I think that we adjusted well in the second half and the pressure was pretty good. The possession also changed in our favor.”

The 5-3-2 is built on flexibility and can be a dangerous shape with the right personnel. With a typically narrow midfield, teams rely on their fullbacks, or wingbacks in this case, to join the attack. With Miglioranzi joining Danny Califf and Carlos Valdes in the center of the defense, Sheanon Williams and Gabriel Farfan were given room to get forward.

“It’s something that we worked on all week,” said Williams. “It was more of three in the back with me and Gabe pushing up almost as midfielders, but obviously we’ve got our defensive responsibilities. It causes us to unbalance them and create numbers in the midfield. I think we did that and it worked pretty well in the first half. We changed it up a little bit in the second half and still had some chances. But it’s something different. It’s about giving them a different look.”

The strengths and weaknesses of the 5-3-2 were both exhibited in the first 10 minutes of the game.

Philadelphia struggled to possess the ball in their new look shape, and Gabriel Farfan was yellow carded after catching Danny Cruz with a high boot in the Union’s defensive third.

MVP candidate Brad Davis whipped in a clinical free kick from the spot of the foul, and Andre Hainault knocked home the header to put Houston up in just the sixth minute.

But the Union responded right away.

With Williams pushed all the way up the pitch, the Union found themselves with forward numbers. Williams’ diagonal run was covered by Corey Ashe, leaving Michael Farfan with space in the midfield. The rookie’s looping cross found Sebastien Le Toux, who drove a one-time left-footed shot past Tally Hall.

Despite five first half shots on goal for the Union, Houston enjoyed most of the possession in the opening 45 minutes. The Dynamo found their winner through Calen Carr. Brian Ching was able to find a gap in the Union defense and play in Carr, whose sliding effort beat Faryd Mondragon at the near post.

“Maybe on the second goal there was a hint of offside,” said Miglioranzi. “It was a trademark set piece from them on the first goal. Fortunately for us it’s a two-leg affair. We’re still in a very good position to go there and battle for a position in the Eastern Conference finals. One goal is all it’s going to take from us, and I think we have more than that in us.”

Pushing for the equalizer, Nowak changed out of the 5-3-2 at halftime. Miglioranzi moved into the midfield with Brian Carroll, and the Union used Roger Torres, Jack McInerney and Freddy Adu off the bench.

“I think [in the first half] we were trying to get an extra guy in the box to deal with their crosses,” said Califf. “But that left a lot of room for [Carroll] to cover on his own. I think we were much more effective in the second half when we pushed an extra guy into the midfield to help him out. He didn’t have to cover 40 yards square by himself. We were pushing the game, and I’ve said it all along, all year – we’ve been better when we’re chasing the game. We were better [in the second half].”

“[The idea was to] retain the ball a bit more,” added Miglioranzi. “You have more numbers going forward, rather than behind the ball, when we’re defending and maybe swinging the ball across the back. It was about getting more numbers forward, where we could possibly get a goal back.”

Despite the result and defensive formation, the Union created plenty of offensive chances. Philadelphia managed 16 shots, 10 of which were on target. Hall was excellent in the net, and McInerney was denied an equalizer by the crossbar.

In the second leg on Thursday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN Deportes), the Union will need those chances to start finding the back of the net in order to avoid a prompt playoff exit.